Tell the truth about food

What is it about modern life that turns things our ancestors would have regarded with relative equanimity into national crises? In the 19th and early 20th centuries, outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease - which does not actually kill animals, much less humans - occurred almost annually. Politicians did not then call emergency meetings, nor did various bossy-boots tell everybody to stay at home. So what has changed? First, modern farming is so intensive, so dependent on maximum use of investment, land and raw materials, that it cannot tolerate the inefficiencies of temporarily sick animals, producing less milk and less meat. Second, food distribution is so integrated nationally that a disease which, in 1967, could be almost confined to a few counties in Wales and the west can now spread from the north-east to the south-west in days. A foot-and-mouth outbreak is thus a doubly ironic comment on modern farming methods, which increase the risks that disease will spread while ensuring that what was once a setback for farmers is now a catastrophe.

As Colin Tudge pointed out in an NS essay last month, agriculture has neglected the principles of traditional husbandry: that, to minimise the possibilities of infection, animals should not be overcrowded; and that, to prevent microbes feasting on corpses, the time and distance between slaughter and consumption should be as short as possible. We have allowed agriculture and food distribution, influenced by the rapacity of supermarkets, to develop like other modern profit-making industries, with the emphasis on high productivity and efficiency. So cows are fed on ground animal remains as a cheap source of protein. More animals are reared more intensively on fewer farms. Abattoirs are subject to economies of scale so that their numbers have fallen by nearly two-thirds in 15 years. Livestock travel an average of 100 miles for slaughter, and sometimes from Northumberland to Essex. Centralised supermarket distribution systems create further delay between slaughter and consumption.

Imagine, then, that ministers announce new regulations to put a stop to all this nonsense, which is not much less foolish than the Soviet collectivisation of farms. Imagine that food prices rise steeply as a result. Would the newspapers that now run articles deploring intensive farming politely applaud this result? Would such a government have the remotest chance of winning a subsequent election? In your dreams.

This is a perfect illustration of Professor Eric Hobsbawm's argument on page 25 of this issue. Liberal democracy, at its present stage of development, is poorly equipped to deal with the biggest 21st-century problems. Since electors are now encouraged by politicians and the media to vote according to their personal interests - rising living standards, lower taxes and so on - democracy is scarcely distinguishable in its effects from the market consumerism that, according to its advocates, is a better gauge of what people really want. Either way, we are trapped in the tyranny of small choices. People buy (or vote for) cheap food; for most individuals on modest budgets, this is a perfectly rational choice. But the result - animals reared in inhumane conditions and at risk of disease, which may sometimes (as with BSE or E coli) be transmissible to humans - is one that nobody would freely choose. Again, it is perfectly rational for individuals to vote for lower taxes; to take the car to work or shopping (and to resist attempts to prevent them doing so); or to get the best school, even if it means paying, for their own children. Yet anybody who deliberately chose the results - cash-starved public services, global warming and a socially divisive education system - would be thought to have taken leave of their senses.

As Professor Hobsbawm argues, political decisions should be "about common or group interests as distinct from the sum of choices . . . of individuals pursuing private preferences". But democratic politicians, at least in public discourse, have all but forgotten this truth. Ruled by marketing gurus, they segment the electorate into notional types - Worcester woman, Mondeo man, Pebble-dash person - who seem united only by suburban self-interest and narrow-mindedness. They defer to a US theory that, with deference dead and external threats minimised, western rulers need a "daily mandate" to ensure continuing public support. So the Tories change their policies almost as often as they change their clothes, in response to the latest focus group or private poll. Labour sometimes strives to do the right thing, but nervously, believing that it can get away with it only if it also panders to the public's basest instincts, as on asylum-seekers and crime.

None of this should be an argument against democracy. As Professor Hobsbawm observes, governments must have dialogue with the people if they are to understand how techno-political solutions affect real human beings. But we need better leadership, from politicians willing to confront the public with hard choices and unpalatable truths. We can expect nothing before the election; but Tony Blair, once safely back in Downing Street, could make a start by telling the British that they must pay much more for their food.

Leave our dead atheists alone

Will nobody leave our dead heroes in peace? It is just about tolerable to expose Field Marshal Montgomery as a repressed homosexual with paedophiliac tendencies, or Winston Churchill as a depressive prone to alcoholic binges. But to claim that the philosopher and philanderer A J Ayer, who ridiculed all metaphysical statements as nonsense, got religion near the end of his life is deeply shocking. In 1988, after an operation, Ayer's heart "stopped" for four minutes. Now a doctor has told the Sunday Telegraph that Ayer reported seeing a red light and a Divine Being and said he would have to "revise all my books and opinions". If there were an atheistic version of blasphemy, this would be it. Apply Occam's razor, as Ayer surely did on reflection. He saw a Divine Being as he came back to life. It was the nurse.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Democracy can be bad for you